Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Word made Flesh (A Christmas day sermon from John 1:1-14)

Fr Richard Rohr shares a fascinating story he learned from a seasoned African missionary. When the priest first arrived in an African village he began by celebrating the Eucharist in a simple manner. He said to the people, “Now I’m going to celebrate a very simple means of sharing God’s love with you. Those of you who want to join in this meal are entering into God’s love.” Then he held out the bread to them and said, “Whoever eats this bread believes that your people are one people.” He explained to them the implication of this simple gospel, “That means you can’t hate one another anymore.” That’s how he shared the gospel.

Unknowingly, the priest had violated a custom of the tribe; namely, the men ate together, while the women and children ate separately. It was a disgrace for a man to eat with a woman. Unwittingly, the priest had gathered men and women around the sacred table and fed the bread to men and women as equals. This disturbed them, and the natives reacted quite vocally. The priest raised his voice over the murmurings and said, “In Christ there is no distinction between male and female.”

The people were dumbfounded at that statement. They wanted to know who this Christ was who made no distinction between men and women. The priest tried to explain, “He is the father of all. That means you are all brothers and sisters, and when you eat this bread, you are one in Christ.” At this, some began to move away, because it was humiliating for men to eat with women.

The great challenge for the priest was to communicate the gospel in their cultural context. For the priest the Eucharist struck at the very heart of the gospel, so his approach was to invite them to the sacred meal and as simply as possible explain to them, day after day, the meaning and implication of the ritual. He kept telling them they were one people and they were to love one another. In fifteen years, this created something of a social revolution in the tribe.

One day, the men came and literally laid their weapons at his feet, saying to him, “If the gospel you preach to us is true, if this Jesus, this Son of the Father, loves us in this total way, and if he is the Father of all the people in our village and the Father of the people in the village down the road, then we can’t kill them anymore.” Rohr comments, “In fifteen years this tribe learned what Western Civilization hasn’t been able to learn in two thousand years with all its complex versions of Christianity.”

The missionary told Fr Rohr that he saw no point in confusing these people by telling them about all the different denominations in Christendom. He just wanted to communicate Jesus’ and the Father’s love to them. After fifteen years, there were over ten thousand practicing Christians who were celebrating the Eucharist.

Then, a bishop of Rome assigned to investigate the situation asked the priest, “Do these people know that they are Catholics?” The priest responded, “No, I haven’t told them that yet.” The bishop tightened up and thought the situation was entirely out of control. He insisted that they had to know they were Catholic. The priest replied, “They are a catholic people. They are a universal people, open to all that God is saying and doing.” The bishop threw up his hands and returned to Rome.

The priest started thinking about how upset the bishop was and that perhaps he should teach them about the seven sacraments. So he gathered some of the elders together and explained to them that a sacrament is an encounter between God and humans, and that there were seven of these. All the elders looked puzzled, and finally one of them said, “But we thought there were at least seven hundred!”

It was at that moment the priest realized that he would be limiting their perception of Divine Reality if he were to insist that there were only seven moments when God encounters humans. These people were already sacramentally minded and more incarnational than even the most devout Westerners. They had no problem thinking that God communicates with humans through signs, symbols, rituals, and gestures; their  whole lives were filled with these things. They couldn’t imagine limiting these to seven. One of the great realities that the Christian religion has given to the world is the truth that God is here among us in many forms and expressions.

We who are followers of Jesus, we look to Jesus as the definitive, quintessential incarnation and revelation of God. Now, I do not insist that this must be so for all people, but for you and me who are followers of Christ, Jesus is our model and guide as to what God is like. We look to Jesus first of all.

And while we look to Jesus as a unique revelation of God, we need to remember that we are all unique, and the Divine character and goodness that was incarnated through the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus, can be incarnated in you and me in similar ways. Jesus shows us the human potential. According to John’s Gospel incarnation is the way God will save the world – that is heal the world, redeem the world, liberate the world, transform the world, and bring peace to the world.

The two particular aspects of the nature of God that are highlighted in John’s prologue are grace and truth: “The Word became flesh (and to keep this simple, the reference to Word or Logos is just another way of referencing the Divine) and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” I think we are pretty clear on what grace is and hardly needs any elaboration, but our understanding of truth probably needs expanding and maybe even in some ways correcting.

Truth in John’s Gospel, and in early Christianity in general, is not doctrinal or factual or propositional. It became that later in church history when creeds became popular. In this Gospel, however, Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life. Truth pertains to life – God’s life – and in particular the life embodied and modeled in the way of Jesus. So truth is first and foremost about a way of life.

It’s not about getting your beliefs correct. In fact, there is no standard dogma in scripture or anywhere where we can determine correct beliefs. In early Christianity there was quite a bit of diversity. And of course, God is so much more than any of our beliefs. When I talk about beliefs I like to talk about healthy and unhealthy beliefs, life affirming beliefs and life diminishing beliefs, not about correct or incorrect beliefs. In my opinion, a false belief is a belief that if acted on diminishes our lives in some way.
Truth relates to life. To live truly is to live with integrity and generosity and humility. To live in truth is to live for what is good, just, and right for all people.

Our scripture text today says that the Word that Jesus embodied, we too can embody. Our text suggests that what Jesus received we too can receive, that what Jesus incarnated we too can incarnate, and we do that by learning and receiving from Jesus. The text says that as many as receive Jesus, as many as believe in his name, they receive the power to become children of God. The way I read that is that they receive the power to fulfill, to actualize what they already have and realize or fulfill who they already are.

We all bear the image of God and we all are God’s daughters and sons. We all have the Divine life residing in us. Paul told the philosophers in Athens in Acts 17 that we are all God’s offspring and that in God we all live, move, and have our existence. Here in John’s prologue we are told that the Divine Source of Life is responsible for everything that exists and that this life is the light of all people. This light enlightens everyone, says John. Human beings may acknowledge this or be completely blind to the source of this light. Different religious traditions give this Light different names, but it is the same light that we see so beautifully radiating from the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

According to this text we Christians access this Light and Life by receiving Jesus, by believing in his name, that is, we enter into the experience and flow of the light and life of God when we open our hearts and minds to the grace and truth that Jesus lived out for us. We receive the power to live out our sonship and daughtership to God, we receive the power to actually mirror the image of God, when we trust in the sufficiency and adequacy of the grace and truth embodied by Jesus, and when we commit ourselves to the values that Jesus fleshed out for us. We receive power to reflect the light of God’s grace and truth when we are faithful to live out and practice daily the grace of Jesus and truth of Jesus. This is what faith is. We believe in and trust in the way of Jesus and we strive to be faithful everyday to actually living out our commitment to embody in our lives and relationships the grace and truth of God.

I love the story the late Fred Craddock use to tell about the time he and his wife were on vacation in the Smokey Mountains. The had left the kids with grandparents and they had just set down in a new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn which featured a beautiful view of the mountains.

As they waited for their food they were engaged in conversation by an elderly gentleman. Fred learned later that the gentleman who conversed with them had been twice elected governor of Tennessee. When he found out that Fred was a Disciples of Christ minister he pulled up a chair and told Fred his story.

He grew up in the mountains there and his mother was not married when she had him. In those days there was a lot of shame in that. So the reproach that fell on his mother fell also on him. When they went into town he could see people starring at him and making guesses as to who his father was. At school the children said ugly things to him and so he stayed to himself at recess and ate lunch alone.

Then in his early teens he began to attend a little Disciples of Christ church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. He would go just for the sermons. He told Fred he wasn’t sure why, but his sermons did something for him. He would arrive just in time for the sermon and hurry off quickly afterward. He was afraid a boy like him might not be welcome there.

One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before he could get out and make his way to the door, So as he stood there kind of pinned in he felt a big hand on his shoulder and he knew it was that minister. He turned around and looked him in the face. The minister paused and he just knew the minister was going to make a guess as to who his father was. A moment later the minister said, “Well, boy, I know who you are. You’re a child of . . .” then he paused again and continued, “Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.” Then he swatted him on the back and told him to go claim his inheritance. He told Fred there in that restaurant, “I left that church house a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

I can imagine that there were some in John’s church who felt like that when they opened their lives to the grace and truth of God embodied in Jesus. The challenge for us is to do that daily. To daily trust in the power of God’s grace and truth that we have come to experience in Jesus and then nurture this grace and truth so that the life of Jesus grows in us and is expressed in our relationships, in our attitudes and actions, and in all we say and do.

Our good God, we celebrate this Christmas day the Word made flesh. We give thanks for the grace and truth made visible in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. And we commit ourselves anew to live and embody the grace and truth of Jesus every day. Open our eyes so that we can see where we need to grow, where we need to let the light of your grace and truth shine into our own hearts, and may we then let it shine for others to see.

Monday, December 19, 2016

God With Us as Guide and Liberator (An Advent sermon from Matthew 1:18-25)

They shall call him Emmanuel, which means, God with us. Christians of different traditions may utilize different images and words to talk about how Jesus incarnates the Divine, but all of us see in Jesus a representative of God with us. When I look at Jesus I see a special revelation of the goodness and grace of God, whose life and teachings serve as a guide for my life and as a means of liberation.

Let’s talk first about God as Emmanuel being our guide. Joseph is not a dominant figure in the birth stories, but here, in the way he responds to Mary’s pregnancy Joseph functions as a kind of model for all of us.  

What do I mean? Consider how Joseph responded when he discovered that the wife he was pledged too was pregnant, and of course he assumed she was pregnant by another man. He assumed that she had been unfaithful. The text says that Joseph “being a righteous man (or just man) and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Matthew says that Joseph was “a righteous or just man.” What does that mean? For the scribes and Pharisees and other devout persons that would have meant that Joseph kept and obeyed the law of God, just as for many Christians today being righteous or just is understood as obeying scripture. Now that sounds good, right? But the deeper issue here is this: Is slavish obedience to the law – or scripture in general – always the right thing to do? Is doing what the Bible says always the will of God?   

What does the law tell Joseph to do? In Deuteronomy 22:21 the law says quite specifically what to do regarding a woman who has been found to be unfaithful: “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.” That’s what the Bible says. The Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment, but Joseph could have made life extremely difficult for Mary. But Matthew says that because Joseph was “a righteous man” he wanted to handle this quietly so as not to bring public shame and disgrace to Mary. In other words, because he was a righteous person he decided not to obey the Scripture that judged and condemned her.

In one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations he wrote: "God restores rather than punishes, which is a much higher notion of how things are “justified” before God. The full and final Biblical message is restorative justice, but most of history has only been able to understand retributive justice. Now, I know you’re probably thinking of many passages in the Old Testament that sure sound like serious retribution. And I can’t deny there are numerous black and white, vengeful scriptures, which is precisely why we must recognize that all scriptures are not equally inspired or from the same level of consciousness."

A favorite preacher of many preachers is the late Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was a New Testament scholar and homiletician who taught aspiring ministers how to both read their New Testaments and preach. In a sermon on this very text Dr. Craddock says: “Joseph is a good man, and he rises to a point that is absolutely remarkable for his day and time. He loves his Bible and knows his Bible and bless his heart for it. But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’”  Craddock then asks, “Where does it say that, Joseph? In your Bible? I’ll tell you where is says that. It says that in the very nature and character of God.” What is Dr. Craddock suggesting?  He is saying that the Bible doesn’t always give us a reliable picture of the true nature and character of God. Certainly there are texts that are highly enlightened and reflect the highest level of human consciousness, but there are others texts which are more deeply entrenched within the biases of their culture.

Who was Joseph listening to? He was listening to the God who was with him. He was listening to the God he had come to personally know and experience. Joseph decided not to listen to the scripture that said to stone Mary, in order that he could listen to the voice of Divine Mercy and Grace.

Jesus did the same thing. In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus practicing inclusion, practicing love of neighbor, identifying with and welcoming the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. In story after story we see Jesus reaching out to the most vulnerable people in his society, healing the sick and liberating the demonized.

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

If we will look into the face of Jesus to see what God is like we would realize that God always prefers mercy to judgment, that God is always more interested in inclusion than exclusion, that in God’s world human need always take precedence over some legal code or law.

Or if we would just look into the faces of our sisters and brothers all around us we could see the longing and heart of God. We can look into the faces of the sick and see God’s longing for a world where sickness and disease or some other kind of human suffering cannot snatch away a child or loved one in the prime of life. We can look into the face of the destitute and see God’s longing for a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, a world where one group is not allowed to lord it over another group or have too much when another group has so little. We can look into the face of someone put down and demeaned and we can see God’s longing for a world that puts an end to all the marginalization and condemnation of other religions and races. We can look into the faces of the impoverished and displaced and those dying from explosions and gun fire and see God’s longing for a world free of poverty and war.

If we will allow it, God is with us as a guide to show us how to use our sacred texts to inspire love and mercy, rather than judgment and condemnation. And sisters and brothers if we just open our eyes to what is buried deep in our own hearts we would see that God longs to save us from our prejudices and greed, from our own fears and frustrations, so that we can be more grace-filled and merciful.

And this brings me to my next point. God is with us as a guide to show us how to love and God is with us as a liberator to set us free to love. According to Matthew’s story the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. The kind of salvation many of the Jews in Palestine longed for during Jesus’ day was salvation from the Romans. The Romans were the oppressors. The Jews of Palestine were under the heavy arm of Rome. The Jews were in servitude and were heavily taxed, even though Rome permitted some measure of self-governance, particularly with regard to their religious laws and social customs. But the Jews had no rights. Rome could pretty much do as they wished. So you can see that what many Jews longed for was a Messianic figure who would rescue them from Rome – a kind of rebel leader who would rally the people and forcefully lead them in defiance of and liberation from Rome.

Jesus, of course, was not that kind of liberator, but we would be greatly amiss to think that God’s salvation does not involve liberation from oppression. In fact, later in this very Gospel Jesus offers some very specific examples of how his people might creatively, nonviolently stand up to Roman oppression, though it still carried considerable risk. When Jesus told them to stand their ground when they were slapped and humiliated by a Roman citizen or some Roman authority by offering the other cheek, or when he instructed them to carry a Roman soldier’s bag an extra mile after being pressed into demeaning service, he was giving them a creative strategy for nonviolently standing up to and protesting injustice. Certainly Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God included salvation from all those oppressive forces and systems that stood in the way of creating a just and good world.

Did you know that the word that is translated “save” in the Gospels is most often translated “heal” or “make whole” or “make well?” It’s the same word in the Greek. To be saved is to be healed. To be saved is to be made whole or well. To be saved is to be liberated from destructive powers, whether that’s physical or mental illness, oppressive systems and structures, or one’s own personal demons and sins. Salvation is about being healed, liberated, and made whole spiritually, psychologically, physically, socially, and relationally.

So in light of this broad understanding of salvation, what might the significance be of this saying announced to Joseph by the angel: “He will save his people from their sins.” The Jewish Christians who first read this may have been thinking, “What we need is salvation from Roman oppression?” Maybe the point is this: Just as important as liberation from oppressive forces from without, is liberation from entrapping forces from within.

When there is a change in power, when situations reverse, when the oppressed people come to a place of power, what is to prevent them from oppressing other peoples the same way they were oppressed? Consider how often in history when there has been a change in power, when the people on the bottom have risen up and took control, think how often the new people on top oppress their enemies the same way they were oppressed. So the cycle of hate and violence continues.

Who is mature enough to say, “Enough! No more oppression? No more violence”? Who is spiritual enough to say, “No more hate”? It would have to be those who have been and are in the process of being healed and liberated from their sins. It would have to be those who have been and are being liberated from their inner fears, anxieties, prejudices, and insecurities. Who is morally strong enough and courageous enough to resist the urge to return violence for violence and stop the cycle? It would have to be those who have been and are being freed from their inner demons, from their hate and greed and their hirst for revenge. Only then would Abraham’s seed or, for that matter, any of us be ready and able to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.
These are the peacemakers who preach and practice forgiveness. These are the pure in heart who embody lives of simplicity and honesty and generosity.  These are those who hunger and thirst after restorative justice, who know that no one is truly free and whole until all people are free and whole. These are the humble and meek of the earth who know that we all need the same things in order to thrive in God’s good creation. These are the faithful and diligent who sense a great responsibility to care for and manage well the creation, because they know that all life is sacred.

What if Christianity in the West had understood and emphasized this broader understanding of salvation that is depicted in the Gospels? What if Christianity in the West had realized that God’s salvation is about God’s healing and liberation of both individuals and whole communities from all these negative, life-diminishing forces within and without? What if Christianity in the West had come to see God’s salvation as peace within and without, in the heart and between persons, communities, and nations? Maybe Western Christianity would have had a greater impact for good and developed a better reputation in the world.  

God is with us sisters and brothers. Always has been, always will be. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans nothing can sever us from God’s love as made known to us in Jesus the Christ. God is with us as a guide into the way of love and peace. God is with us as liberator from all those life-diminishing powers that would oppress us physically, spiritually, socially, and psychologically. God is with us – all of us – to guide us and redeem us.

O God, let us open our minds and hearts and bodies to your healing and liberating presence. May we be led by your loving wisdom and life-affirming Spirit. May we find healing and wholeness. May we be freed of our inner demons and sins. May our lives be witnesses to your healing and transforming grace. Amen  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Breaking Down Barriers to Peace (Romans 15:1-14)

Some of us who have been following the tweets of Bana Alabed, a seven year old Syrian girl living in Aleppo, have been emotionally impacted by the ravages of war as told by a child. Late last Sunday night she tweeted that her house had been bombed. She said, “Tonight we have no house, it’s bombed and I got in rubble. I saw deaths and I almost died.” On Monday her mother posted an update that her family was on the run. What is their chance of survival? Not very good. When we hear and see these first-hand accounts of the devastation and deaths caused by war we realize how broken our world is. On this second Sunday of Advent we pray for and hopefully will commit ourselves anew to work for peace.

Our scripture text today from Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks to this longing for peace. Prior to this passage Paul has been dealing with tensions in the fellowship, offering instruction on how these tensions should be resolved. Hear once again he urges them to live in harmony with one another. He wanted the church to be a model of the future age when justice and peace would prevail in all segments and sectors of human life. In the OT text passage from Isaiah for this Sunday in Isaiah 11, the prophet paints a poetic picture of how he envisioned such a time. Isaiah says that the one who will fulfill their hopes for peace will bring justice to the poor and he will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, that is he will equalize things out and those who have been beaten down will be lifted up. One of Jesus’ favorite sayings in the Gospels is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. All violence will abolished. They will not hurt or destroy on the Lord’s holy mountain, says the prophet. The prophet’s vision of peace cannot be dislodged, it cannot be disconnected from justice. So peace and justice go together. Any peace without justice, without fairness, without healing and liberation for all the people is a false peace.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he urges them to live in harmony, to be at peace, and to be a model of what a world filled with God’s love and a world doing God’s will would look like. I think there are some things that stand out as barriers to peace that Paul would like to see toppled.

One barrier to peace is unforgiveness. Now Paul doesn’t specifically speak about forgiveness in this passage, but he does hold up Christ as our model and he says that Christ did not please himself but sought the good of others and was even willing to bear the insults of others without any bitterness or resentment or need to retaliate. In Luke’s version of the passion story Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  

There can be no pathway to peace – in our families, in our communities, in our societies, and in the world – unless there is forgiveness. Someone has to say, “I am willing, we are willing to absorb the offense without responding in kind, without becoming bitter and resentful, without hurting you in return.” Forgiveness is not a simple act, it is more like a complicated process. Forgiveness does not mean there will be no consequences. There may still be consequences and working through those consequences may require multiple acts of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not automatically mean there will be reconciliation and of course, reconciliation can take different forms. Forgiveness may not be enough for peace to result, restitution may be required. So you see, forgiveness is not a simple process, but it is a necessary process. Forgiveness does not automatically result in peace, but there is no peace without it.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the genocide. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.”

Vanier said, “I understand. I understand.” What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she got caught up in a world of hate and depression. Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengence’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness. The first step.”

I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady has had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace, finding peace within herself and finding peace with others.

A second barrier to peace is the pursuit of power. There are some people who will sell their soul for a seat at the table of power. This will always be a barrier to peace, whether in the international and global arena, or within our own families. Jesus, again, is our paradigm. He is our representative and example. Paul says that Christ did not please himself, he emptied himself of all need for control and power. He did not need homage or accolades or praise. He did not need to control anyone or anything. God has never been about control. God loves freedom too much. God is present with us and the rest of creation, but God doesn’t control us or anyone or anything else. Paul says Jesus became a servant on behalf of the truth. Jesus never pursued power; rather, he spoke truth to power, which of course, ultimately landed him on a cross.

What do you think it means to be a servant on behalf of the truth? In Ephesians, which has been attributed to Paul, the writer says, “Speak the truth in love.” How do you do that? That is something that is very heavy on my heart right now. How do I speak the truth in love? How do you speak truth in love? It helps to remember who we are? We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, who are called to be servants of the truth.

Jesus resisted all temptation to acquire power and he often spoke truth to power. He tried to teach his disciples what was really important. On one occasion James and John came to Jesus seeking positions of power. They apparently imagined God’s kingdom like they thought of worldly kingdoms (like us they were very slow to catch on). So they ask Jesus if they could share the platform with him, sitting on his right and left. One version of the story says that they sent their mother to make the request. Jesus rebuke’s them by saying, “You know that the rulers of the world aspire to lord it over others. But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to be great or to be first among you, must become the servant of all.” Mark’s version of this story emphasizes service to all – all people without distinction. And that brings me to a third barrier to peace.

A third barrier to peace is exclusion and discrimination. Discrimination and exclusion can, of course, be expressed overtly, or they can be expressed in more subtle ways. I get the sense that possibly some form of this was finding its way into the Roman church. Paul makes a special point to affirm the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan to bring peace to the world. He quotes four Hebrew scriptures to make this point. Two from the Psalms: “I will confess you among the Gentiles”; and “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the people praise him.” He quotes one from Deuteronomy: “Rejoice, O Gentiles with his people.” And he quotes one from Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

It’s not possible to recreate the historical situation, so we can only guess what was going on. I wonder if perhaps there were some Jewish brethren who, in very subtle ways were saying to the Gentiles, “You know, we were God’s chosen first. We have priority.” Paul reminds them that it was God’s plan all along to bring everyone together. If God blessed Abraham and Abraham’s seed it was for the purpose of extending the blessing to all people, which is what the Abrahamic covenant says, right. “From you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Paul argues earlier in this letter in chapter 5 that Christ as the representative human being through his act of righteousness or justice (which I interpret as a reference to his life that culminated in his death) justification and life comes to all.

Apparently, this is how Paul’s followers understood him, because the writer of Ephesians says that God’s plan in Christ was “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth” (1:10). The writer of the book of Colossians, which also bears Paul’s name, says that through Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven (1:20). So God’s plan according to the Pauline tradition is to bring together, to reconcile, to unify, to make one all people and creation in Christ. Christ is the symbol here for the means and way all things will be brought together. In other words, when we can love like Jesus, when we can trust like Jesus, when we can live like Jesus, then we can all be brought together as one, reconciled to God and to one another and to all creation.

Paul wants the church at Rome and all churches to live in such a way that in their life together they become a foreshadowing, a harbinger, a preview of God’s future kingdom, God’s world of justice and peace. Paul believed that the church should be living right now the peace and justice that will prevail in God’s future world.

So, if a local church and the church universal is supposed to model for the world, that is, give the world a taste of God’s world of peace and justice to come, then we all, I think, would have to admit that we have for the most part failed haven’t we? Many churches reflect more of the culture around them, the biases and mores of the day, than the values and qualities – the peace and justice – that mark God’s future world. However, that is no reason to quit or despair or give up the dream.

Martin Buber was a great Jewish philosopher and a deeply spiritual man who lived in a different age. He died in 1965. He said, “I do not believe in Jesus but I do believe with Jesus.” What was he saying? He was saying, “I don’t believe the same things about Jesus you Christians believe, but I believe in living the way he lived and loving the way he loved.” What if the missionary endeavor of the church in the West took that approach? Instead of insisting that peoples of different cultures and religious traditions believe what we believe about Jesus. What if we rather encouraged them to live and love the way Jesus lived and loved? I wonder if we would have had a much more positive influence. Gandhi taught that our distinctive religious traditions were given to us not to convert the world to our particular religious tradition, but to bless the world.

Last week I shared a story from John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God, about the time his father who was struggling with dementia “blessed” the car salesman (and if you missed that story the sermon is posted on my website if you want to read it). Here is another story he tells about his father during his father’s last days on earth. The people that visited his father most frequently during his father’s final days were a Muslim couple, Sylvia and Boshe. His father’s vocation involved working to provide relief for refugees. Years earlier when this couple had escaped from war-torn Bosnia, his father helped them find sanctuary in Canada. They referred to him as “father” because he had been so central to their birth into freedom and safety. Dr.Newell says that his father had always been a deeply compassionate man, but (and this will sound familiar) he had also been a very conservative man in his religious beliefs. So, while he worked with refugees the world over, at the end of the day, he thought they would be much better off if they adopted his Christian beliefs.

Dr. Newell says that even when his father was in the latter stages of dementia, he loved to pray with the people visiting him. Somehow, his words would flow when he prayed, even though in ordinary speech he would struggle for words. One sunny afternoon, Dr. Newell, joined this Muslim couple in a visit to his father. Dr. Newell asked his father to pray. They were seated in a circle and joined hands. His father prayed, “Without You, O God, we would not be. And because of you we are one family.” Dr. Newell looked up and saw tears streaming down the faces of Boshe and Sylvia. Dr. Newell says, “They knew they were one family with us, but they had never heard my father say it. His religious ego had now collapsed. The barriers had broken down.”

I dream of a world like that sisters and brothers. Can we do anything to help bring it about? Sure we can. One, we can commit ourselves to a process of forgiveness. Two, we can daily practice being a servant of all people. And three, we can recognize and admit our own tendencies toward discrimination and exclusion, and work toward inclusion, welcome, acceptance, and unity, not by focusing on beliefs that divide us, but on the compassion and love that can bring us together.

Our good God, there is too much hate, too much injustice, too much prejudice, too much ego, that divides us and even threatens our survival as a species. Cast these demons out of us, O Lord. Help us dream of a world of peace and justice. And empower us to work toward its realization – by forgiving, serving, accepting, and welcoming all who would come to the table to talk peace and work for justice. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Are you ready? (Romans 13:11-14; Matt. 24:36-44) Sermon for first Sunday of Advent

This text in Matthew is a text I remember from the days I clutched a Scofield reference Bible. Along with Scofield’s infallible notes I carried around a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, you know, the premier text on the future of the world. He called it the late great planet earth because he believed that the earth was headed toward Armageddon, which would culminate in the Second Coming of Christ. He also believed, as was taught in the notes of the Scofield reference Bible, that the church would be raptured (not ruptured, the church has been continuously ruptured, but raptured) – that is, snatched away, evacuated into heaven before the tribulation and suffering that would engulf the earth. This view originated in Europe by a man named John Nelson Darby who later brought it to America, where it was spread through the preaching of popular American evangelists. It offered the kind of sensationalism many evangelists crave. It should come as no surprise that this was an invention of the Western world, where it found a home in Western, and especially American exceptionalism. We tend to gravitate toward a theology of comfort and privilege. How convenient that God would snatch us out of the world before all the tribulation and suffering starts right?   

This text in Matthew is part of Jesus’ end-times discourse. Actually, it may be more of the early church’s end-times discourse than it is Jesus’ discourse. As I said a couple of weeks ago, scholars are divided on how much of this actually originated with Jesus and how much of this originated with Jesus’ first followers. I read texts like this symbolically and metaphorically, which, I would argue, is the way religious texts should be read. The question I ask and the question many spiritual seekers ask is: What is the deeper truth, behind the end-times speculation? Here I think it is simply: Be ready!

The same theme is echoed by Paul in his words to the Roman church. I love the story about the little boy who learned to tell time by listening for the chimes of their grandfather clock. One afternoon he was playing in the house while his mother was out working in the yard. The clock began to chime; he expected three chimes. It chimed once, twice, three times, then four times, five, six, seven, eight, it just kept going – the clock had obviously malfunctioned. Totally disconcerted the little boy raced outside to find his mother, “Mommy, mommy, listen to the clock,” he screamed. His mother said calmly, “Billy, what time is it?” He exclaimed, “I don’t know, but it’s later than it has ever been before.”

It’s true, you know. It is later than it has ever been before. Paul says to his readers, “You know what time it is, it’s time for you to wake from your sleep. It’s time to be ready. For your salvation, your healing and the earth’s healing (this goes together; Paul tied our fate together with the earth’s fate in Romans 8), your liberation and the liberation of the planet, is nearer today than it was yesterday.” Of course, Paul, in his particular historical time and place, did not have the benefit of knowing what we know in our time and place. There’s no way he could have known that the earth has been around for billions of years and life emerged ever so slowly in stages. He couldn’t have known that. But what he says is still true, sisters and brothers. The deeper spiritual truths of sacred texts always transcend historical context, which is why our ancient scriptures still speak to us today. (Actually it is the Spirit speaking to us through our understanding and modern day application of the scriptures).

Rev. King said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it bends slowly right? And there are always forces trying to push it back. And sometimes they do push it  back. But they cannot permanently stifle the force for good in the world. Because that force, that energy is inspired by and empowered by Spirit (capital S). Sometime it is three steps back before we move forward again. One of the great perennial truths these ancient apocalyptic texts teaches us is that deconstruction precedes reconstruction, that the line of progress is never constant, that sometimes the powers that be – the religious, social, or political powers – have to come unhinged like stars falling from the sky (as the text in Matthew says) in order for a new creation to emerge.

The prophets prophesied of a day of justice and peace, when the light of the Lord would shine brightly, but they also spoke of times of injustice and violence that would precede the new age. If you will remember the Gospel text from a few weeks back, Jesus warned that before the day of peace and justice arrives, there will be deception, calamity, persecution, conflict, and violence. (Do you remember that text?) In Matt 24:29 the text says, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken.” This occurs before the coming of the Son of Man. All of this is symbolic language. The coming of the Son of Man is a symbolical way of talking about the coming of a new day for humanity, when humanity more clearly reflects the image of the divine, when the law of love becomes written on all our hearts and minds. And though that day may be a long time yet in coming, we are closer to that day  today than we were yesterday, even though there are days, months, and even years when that doesn’t seem to be true. We view progress from within our own limited, boxed in view of time. But if we are open to a larger vision, we can see that as a species we are slowly making progress.  And what Paul says is true, though in a deeper way than he intended I’m sure. Salvation is nearer. The darkness will give way to the dawn of a new day. That is our hope, which is rooted in the very narrative, the very story that is at the heart of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

If we judge Jesus by the visible outcome of his work we would have to say he was a failure. His anti-establishment critique and his positive vision of the kingdom of God landed him where? On a Roman cross. He was executed by the powers that be. When he died, according to the passion story in all three of the Synoptics, darkness descended over the earth. Now, whether that historically happened is irrelevant. The symbolism here is what matters. Darkness seemed to have engulfed the world. Hate had done its deed. It seemed as if injustice and evil would prevail. But then the tomb turned up empty. And Jesus appeared to his disciples. Then it became clear to Jesus’ followers that the darkness would not last forever. God raised Jesus giving hope to all who would dare to believe that love and justice would one day prevail, showing us that somehow, someway, when death seems to be the strongest, life springs forth. You can’t keep love down. Love springs up! Hope springs up! Faith springs up! And so the praying and preaching for a just world will not be silenced. The dreaming goes on. The work goes on. The teaching goes on. Hope springs eternal, because love is eternal.

And so our discipleship to Jesus compels us to be ready. To be ready to speak when the occasion calls for speech, and to be silent when the occasion calls for silence. Our duty is to be ready – ready to pray, ready to serve, ready to love, ready to work, ready to confront, ready to comfort, ready to do whatever it is that will further the cause of justice and peace and the common good that God wills for all of us. We must never give in to the darkness. We must resist the urge to respond to hate with hate, or to respond to violence with violence. Our calling is to embody the peaceful, nonviolent, compassionate but courageous way of Jesus.  

One aspect of being ready is that is that we must be ready to risk and suffer if necessary for God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Once there was a general who was infamous for his viciousness. He was brutal and without mercy. He went to attack a small village that lay in the path of his army. Everyone in the village, knowing the general’s reputation, ran away – everyone, except one man. When the general entered the village, he found this one man sitting calmly under a tree. So the general went up to the man and said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am capable of? I can run my sword right through you without batting an eye.” The man said calmly, “Yes, I know.” Then looking at the general he said, “But do you know who I am and what I am capable of? I’ll let you do it . . . without batting an eye.” What are we willing to risk and suffer for the cause of justice and peace in the world?

Another aspect of being ready is that we must be ready at all times to be a channel of blessing to others.  John Philip Newell in his book The Rebirthing of God says that in the last months of his father’s life, as dementia was consuming his mind and memory, he witnessed a river of feeling flowing strong in his father. Throughout his father’s life, his father loved to extend what is sometimes called the Priestly Blessing that is found in Numbers 6:24-25, which begins: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” As the current of feeling began to well up in his father, his father wanted to extend that blessing to everyone, everywhere, repeatedly.

During John’s last visit to his father in Canada before his father entered a nursing home, his sister asked him if he would help sell the family car, which his father was still trying to drive, illegally. So John called the local car salesman and set up an appointment for the next day. He made a point of saying to the car salesman, “When you meet my father tomorrow you will notice that he seems confused about all sorts of things. But please honor him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car. And I’ll be there with him.”

The young salesman totally got the point. There was a playful banter between them. Even in his dementia John’s father had not lost his sense of humor. There were, of course, absurd moments in the conversation. John’s father said to him one time, “Now, how much money do I owe you for this car?” The salesman responded, “No, no Dr. Newell. We want to give you money for the car.” John’s father looked at John and said, “This is very generous of them.” (And those of you with parents or other loved ones suffering from dementia you know how that can be).

At the end of the transaction, as the check was being handed over to John’s father, John said to the young salesman, “Whenever I part from my father or whenever we finish a telephone conversation, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to bless you now.” So, with the three of them standing in the middle of the car showroom, John’s father took the salesman’s hand, looked straight into his eyes and said, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

When John looked up at the young salesman there were tears streaming down his face. He would never forget that moment. You know, sisters and brothers, everyone of us carries with us every day the potential to be such a blessing to one another. There is a well-spring of potential grace and blessing within each of us that can flow out to others at any moment if we are ready to carry that blessing, if we are ready to be a conduit for the blessing of God to flow to another. Are we ready?

Now, for this blessing to flow freely we may have to get rid of some things. We may have to relinquish some things. It is not likely we will be much of a blessing to anyone if we keep carrying around old wounds and grudges. We will have to let go of our grievance stories that we keep playing over and over in our minds, like a video set on constant repeat. We will have to let go of our bitterness and resentment. And no matter how much we may dislike the actions and attitudes of another person or group, we can’t allow our dislike to become hate or be expressed through harmful actions. Are we ready to move beyond our own little stories, our personal agendas, our own self-interests to embrace the hurt, pain, grief, and suffering that another may be going through? 

In her little book titled, Earthly Good: Reflections on Life and God, Rev. Martha Stern tells about one time when she had taken her car to a body shop after her son drove it through the house. This unfortunately wasn’t the first time she had been to that shop. She says to the owner, “Roy, you see a lot come through here, don’t you?” He nods and says, “I see them come and go. And come back. And people get upset, you know. It really don’t matter if the wreck’s your fault, if the wreck ain’t your fault. Wrecks are upsetting business.” And by the way, that’s true whether you are talking about your car, or your marriage, or your family or an election, or a business deal, or your job, or your health, or whatever right?  Wrecks are upsetting business.

Roy pauses here, then he says, “I still remember one lady, must have been twenty years ago. She did what I believe y’all want to do. She laid right down, right out there on the asphalt. And she hollered.” Martha asks, “What did you do?” He says, “Well, we picked her up.”

Sisters and brothers are we ready to pick one another up? Are we ready to bless one another? Are we ready to encourage someone who may be very down? Are we ready to extend hospitality and grace to someone others may be ready to disregard or discard?  Are we ready to risk or even suffer with those who are marginalized and treated unfairly? Are we ready to dream, pray, speak, and work for the common good – for a just and fair world. Are you ready?

Our good God, help us ready ourselves for the opportunities that open up to us each day to be a blessing to others and to participate in your good will. Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Having a Big Vision (Luke 21:5-19; Isa. 65:17-25)

We have two different end time visions here – one in Isaiah and the other in Luke. Before I preach these texts, before I draw spiritual truths from them, I need to say a word about them, particularly the text in Luke 21. First, when the biblical writers talk about the last days of the end-time, the end they are talking about is not the end of everything; they are not talking about the end of the earth. They are talking about the end of the present age, which they believed would usher in a new age, an age of healing and renewal, an age of peace and justice, not somewhere else, but on this earth. So the end is not the end of the earth, but the end of this present age, and the beginning of a new age on this earth. Thus the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Second, the text in Luke 21 is extremely difficult to interpret from a historical perspective, and biblical scholarship is divided on it. As I have said many times before, Gospel stories are not historical reports, they are proclamations, and in many passages we don’t know what actually goes back to Jesus, or what originated with his disciples who read their interpretations and understandings back into the stories. This is literature of faith, not history.

So here is the problem with Luke 21. There is one group of scholars who argue that the historical Jesus believed the end of the present age and the beginning of the new age was upon them. So most of the sayings here in Luke 21 (and in the parallel texts of Mark 13 and Matt. 24) they argue go back to Jesus. Jesus, they say, was simply wrong about the timing of the new age. Another group of scholars argue that most of these sayings in Luke 21 and the parallel texts do not go back to Jesus at all. They argue that these teachings were the teachings of Jesus’ early followers, who believed, in light of God raising Jesus from the dead, that the end time was upon them. These scholars present the case that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet, but a prophet more like the classical Hebrew prophets.

Now, why do I point this out? I point this out simply bbecause I think it is important for you understand what the scholars are saying and to understand a little something about the difficulties historical scholars face in determining in the Gospels what actually goes back to Jesus and what was read back into the stories and teachings of Jesus by his early followers. It’s a real challenge for Jesus historians.

Okay, having said that, in my opinion, none of what the historical scholars say about this text actually makes a whole lot of difference when we read this text for spiritual truth. And the spiritual truth that I glean from Luke 21 is this: Tribulation naturally precedes renewal and that seems to be universal. It’s like what I talked about last week. Spiritual growth, the path we follow to moral and spiritual transformation always involves some necessary suffering and regression. It’s always three steps forward and two steps back. Sometime four steps back.

This text in Luke 21 tells us what we can expect in route to real transformation and renewal. There will be lots of false promises and deceptions and we don’t have to do any fact checking to know that. Hence the warning: “Beware that you not be led astray.” There will be wars and insurrections. There will be conflicts and violence as kingdoms rise against kingdoms. This is true of nations, it is true of political, social, and religious groups, and it is true of individuals. There will be natural calamities and disasters, because our earth is evolving too. And we inflict some of this on ourselves. We now know that our manipulation of our earth’s resources is having long term affects on the planet. Scientists tell us that humans are the primary cause of climate change. This text warns that people of faith can expect opposition and persecution. People of faith become an easy scapegoat for people’s angst and anger. But you know, sisters and brothers, the really sad thing is that so often, at least in American culture, it is one people of faith persecuting another people of faith. Which is religion gone bad. I have personally found many secular, nonreligious people more accepting and welcoming to me, than many Christian people who want to impose their brand of Christianity on me and the rest of us. Now, all of these things – deception, conflict and violence, natural calamities, persecution – none of this should come as a surprise. They are the birth pangs that lead to the arrival of a new era of justice and peace.

What this text teaches us, I believe, is this: Tribulation precedes jubilation. Suffering goes part and parcel along with our moral and spiritual development. We move from stages of immaturity to maturity, often through periods of great challenge and trial. This is true for individuals and it is true for larger communities. What this says to us is: Don’t lose hope. Don’t give in to despair. Deception, opposition, suffering, disaster, conflict and violence are realities we have to live through to get to a new and better place. The text says that those who endure will gain their souls. That is, those who maintain integrity, those who go not give in to despair, those who fight the good fight against cynicism and egotism and negativism will find healing and hope and become better rather than bitter. They will become grace-filled and grateful persons and communities.

And that brings us to Isaiah 65 where the prophet envisions a new earth and a new heaven. It’s beautiful and powerful poetry. The vision of course emerges out of Hebrew religious thought and faith so naturally there would be reference to Jerusalem as the symbol for all the great cities or kingdoms of the earth. It’s a vision of stability and peace. All premature loss of life though sickness or violence is banished. There is health and longevity of life. All inhabitants have not just enough to survive, but enough to thrive. Hate and harm and injustice are wiped away. And these blessings extend to all creation, because all life is sacred: “The wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . and they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” The mountain on which Jerusalem stands is the symbol here for all mountains, all cities, all kingdoms, and all peoples.

This is the vision we must claim and lean into and not give up on no matter how bad things get. We have been warned. Bad things will happen. There will be many setbacks along the path to a new heaven and new earth. But it is promised. It is the goal for which we seek. And so we pray and work to that end. We work for peace. We work for justice. And we never give up.

I believe this is an inclusive vision. It includes everyone. It’s not restricted to just those who believe certain things and are members of a certain group. It’s a vision that includes all God’s children – me, you, your friends, your enemies, everyone. This is what Richard Rohr is referencing in the quote I included in your worship bulletin. Rohr goes on to say, “If your notion of heaven is based on exclusion of anybody else, then it is by definition not heaven. The more you exclude, the more hellish and lonely your existence always is. How could anyone enjoy the “perfect happiness” of any heaven if she knew her loved ones were not there, or were being tortured for all eternity! It would be impossible.” Rohr says, “If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punishes or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God.”

Of course, no one will be in heaven (that is, where God is) who doesn’t want to be. We do have to choose to be there. And that means we have to choose to love, because love is the one and certain law in God’s kingdom that everyone abides by. In fact, as one prophet envisions, it will be so embedded in us that it will be written on our hearts and minds. My belief is, my hope is, that in time, all persons will eventually choose to be part of a new heaven and new earth. My hope is that in time everyone will repent of their egotism and injustice, and choose to love their neighbor as themselves. My hope is that there will be no holdouts. That’s what I believe. You don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to. But I believe it. And that gives me hope. And it challenges me to find ways to love my enemies, to love the people I dislike very much, because they are my sisters and brothers in God’s family.

In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, you will remember, is a scheming, pitiful, deformed little creature obsessed with possessing the ring. He wasn’t always like that. It was his possession of the ring that led to his life diminishment. And still he wants it back. The ring of power ends up possessing those who possess it. It eventually destroys them. Isn’t this how all destructive addictions work? We think we can’t live without them and they consume and destroy us.

Sam and Frodo find themselves traveling in circles lost in the Misty Mountains as they make their way to the Mountain of Doom where Frodo intends on destroying the ring. Here they encounter Gollum, who agrees to help them. All the while Gollum secretly plots to steal the ring back. Gollum might well represent the person you most despise, the person you most dislike. Sam despises Gollum and is harsh and demeaning towards him. Finally Frodo confronts Sam. “Why do you do that—call him names and run him down all the time?” Sam responds, “Because that’s what he is, Mr. Frodo. There’s naught left in him but lies and deceit. It’s the ring he wants. It’s all he cares about.” Gollum is the ultimate narcissist. Looking sadly at Gollum, Frodo says, “You have no idea what it did to him. I have to help him, Sam.” Frodo understands the destructive power and influence of the ring. Sam asks, “Why?” Frodo replies, “Because I have to believe he can come back.”

That’s powerful stuff, friends. I have to believe he can come back. I have to believe that no one is so lost, that no one is so gone, so evil, that he or she cannot be healed and liberated. I have already talked about necessary suffering. Everyone has their own purgatory to live through. It’s different for all of us. But we all have to live through the labor pangs to get to the new person, the new reality, the new vision. However, it is one’s decision to love that ultimately makes all the difference. The whole point of the birth pangs is to get us to the place where we choose to love, we choose to forgive and pursue life. When I invite people to choose Christ what am I really inviting them to do is choose love. That’s what all healthy religion leads to.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie The Hurricane, which is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, played by Denzel Washington. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s Carter is falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to prison for the remainder of his natural life. 

While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and who make a substantial commitment to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives. After twenty years in prison he is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict Carter and Lesra share their thoughts. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” 
After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra says, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching Lexra’s hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.” That is the gospel. It is the power of love to heal and liberate and transform. As Christians we discover that through Jesus. Others may discover it through other ways. But anyone who finds authentic salvation, anyone who discovers real healing and liberation and transformation chooses to love. That’s the key.

The only thing that frees us of hell, the only thing that liberates us from the hate and prejudice and selfishness that keeps us in our private little hells is love. Love embodied in human touch, love embodied in human kindness, acceptance, and welcome, love incarnated in self-giving and sacrifice is what sets us free.

And as we join together eating this bread and drinking the cup we remember and celebrate and commit ourselves to love of neighbor, which love Jesus modeled and exemplified time and time again, a love that led to his cruel death by the forces of hate and religious and political injustice. So let us remember Jesus and commit ourselves once again to live by his teachings and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Living by Faith (Hab.1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10)

Sara Miles, in her spiritual memoir titled, Take this Bread, explains how she came to faith. She was raised an atheist, but for some reason wandered into an Episcopal church one day in San Francisco, where everyone was welcomed and encouraged to take Communion. So she ate the bread and drank the wine and found that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her thirst. She kept going back and grew into a disciple of Jesus.  

Being in California, she discovered that they had access to inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables. So on Fridays, she started a food pantry – right in the middle of their beautiful Sanctuary. All are welcome. There are no forms to fill out. People come and choose what they want. The down-and-out, the addicted, the messed up, the homeless, all are welcome and all are treated with dignity. Sara and the other volunteers pray with those who want prayer, they listen and bless those who need a blessing. And those who come are considered part of their church community.

In her book she underscores that Christian faith is more about “orthopraxy” than it is about “orthodoxy.” That is, authentic faith is more about right practice than it is about right belief. She discovered that faith was not foremost about theology. It was not foremost about denominations or creeds or rituals. It wasn’t about liberal or conservative ideology. It was primarily about faith working through love. She writes: “That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer.”

In other words she learned that growing into faith meant growing into a lifestyle of compassion and love of neighbor, and the neighbor could be anyone with a need. It meant growing in one’s capacity to trust God and trust other people. It meant growing in faithfulness to stay with the tasks that might help heal and encourage others.

When Habakkuk says in 2:4 that the righteous or just live by their faith he is not primarily saying that they live by a set of beliefs, though I don’t want to downplay the importance of healthy beliefs. It is certainly true that what we believe about God will impact and influence how we relate to God and how we relate to others. But what Habakkuk is saying is that the just or righteous continue to be faithful to God’s cause in the world no matter how bad things get. For the just to live by faith means that they continue to trust God and faithfully live out their commitment to do what is just, good, right, and merciful regardless of the obstacles and the challenges they face in pursuing justice and peace, and living out the social ethic of God’s kingdom which is love of neighbor. Living by faith is being faithful to God’s cause, not believing doctrines about God.

Habakkuk’s oracle begins with a complaint. Why, O God, is there so much injustice? Why is there so much violence and bloodshed? Why is it that the wicked hem in the righteous? Why is justice being so perverted?

What do we do when hell engulfs us? When we face wave after wave of hardship or difficulty? When we find ourselves up against a brick wall that impedes our progress? What do we do when things don’t go as expected, when our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, when our questions and our prayers go unanswered, just the way Habakkuk’s did? Can we continue to live by faith? Can we continue to believe that God is good? Can we continue to trust that God is with us and God is for us, even though we cannot feel or sense or see God’s presence and participation in our lives? Can we continue to be faithful to do what is just and fair and right?

Let me offer two responses that I have found helpful, so maybe you will too. First, we can look back with a sacred memory. Chapter 3 of Habakkuk takes the form of a psalm that was most likely set to music. And in this song of faith the prophet remembers and rehearses God’s past participation in the lives of God’s people. He remembers how God brought healing and liberation. “I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work,” says the prophet.

People of other faith traditions will have a different sacred memory than we do and there is nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, because God is a big God and God works in many diverse ways through many different mediators, prophets, healers, and teachers of wisdom. God can work through many different religious traditions. But for us Christians our sacred memory culminates and is centralized in the one we confess as Lord. We remember the life and teachings of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and that gives us the hope to trust in his living presence with us, among us, and in us. This is what we are doing when we share in the bread and cup of Holy Communion. When we come together and partake of the bread and cup we are remembering what God has done for us, how God has acted in and through Jesus to draw us into relationship with God’s self and to show us how to love and care for one another.

Heather Whitestone, you may remember was the Miss America who was deaf. Do you know what she did for her talent competition? She danced. I read somewhere that in her preparation she placed a special hearing device to her ear and played it very loud, which allowed her to faintly hear the music. She then memorized the music — every beat. When the time came for her to dance, she moved gracefully to the rhythm of the music she couldn’t hear, but she remembered. We too remember the music of past encounters and experiences, but especially we remember and celebrate the ways God has broken into our lives through Jesus.

For Habakkuk, the sacred memory of God’s past engagement in the lives of God’s people becomes the foundation for the prophet’s prayer and hope. He says, “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our time revive it; in our time make it known.” God has acted and God continues to act. God continues to speak and participate in the human project. The prophet hears God say, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . if it seems to tarry, wait for it.” In 2:14 the prophet shares what he sees. He says, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

So, if we are to live by faith, first it will be helpful to look back in sacred remembrance of a God who has acted and spoken. Second, we can also look forward in hope that the vision of a just and peaceful world will one day be realized because God is still acting and speaking. God is still drawing, luring, and moving humanity forward – inviting and inspiring us to grow, evolve, and become more like the God who loves us, who is with us and for us and will never forsake us or let us go.

One of the key ways God instills this vision and nurtures this hope is through you and me. God heals humanity through humanity. God saves humanity through humanity. As I have said many times the great truth Christianity brings to the world is the truth of incarnation. God incarnating God’s self in flesh and blood. It is the divine (Spirit) in you that speaks to the divine (Spirit) in me, and vice versa.

The story of Zacchaeus is a story of what is possible. It’s a story that inspires hope. The story of Zacchaeus skillfully picks us threads of previous stories narrated by Luke. One of the threads connects to the story of the rich ruler who comes to Jesus wanting to experience more of the kind of life that characterizes those who live in God’s kingdom. Jesus told him to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow him, and he would discover the abundance of God’s kind of life. He couldn’t do it and walked away dejected. Jesus then said, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they said in astonishment, “Who then can be saved? Who then can be healed and made whole? Who then can be liberated and set free? Jesus responded, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

Then next, we hear about Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who is also rich like the rich ruler who walked away. He too seeks Jesus. Here is a man who virtually sold his soul for money. He was a collaborator with the enemy. A traitor. He was an instrument of the oppressive Roman government that imposed heavy burdens on his fellow Jews. He had wed himself to this unjust system in order to acquire power and possessions. And yet because of his encounter with Jesus that all changed. Money lost its hold on him. He was freed from his greed. None of what use to matter mattered anymore. He awakened to a whole new vision. He says rejoicing, “I will give half of all my possessions to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will make restitution fourfold.” Jesus proclaimed, “Today, salvation (liberation, transformation) has come to this house.” God working in and through the human Jesus did what the disciples thought impossible and the camel passed through the eye of a needle.

The conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus is left to our imagination. We don’t get to listen in. Though I can’t help but feel that Zacchaeus was at a place in his life where he was questioning the course of life he choose, maybe questioning his own worth as a human being. He had become wealthy, but at what cost. His fellow countrymen would have despised him. Many would have had contempt for him. He probably thought God felt the same way.

But then, I can imagine, Zacchaeus hearing rumors about this prophet and sage from Galilee who was very different than all the holy people he knew. He would have heard how Jesus sits down to table with both the righteous and the unrighteous, with Pharisees and sinners. He would have heard how Jesus lifts up the downtrodden, heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, sets free the captives, liberates the oppressed, and how he compassionately welcomes all those who have been written off and condemned. Maybe that instilled some hope. Maybe he started to believe that there could still be a place in God’s kingdom for a greedy traitor who turned his back on his own kin.

One evening the Sci-fi channel was playing a movie based on Stephen King’s book, “The Stand” and I caught it about half-way through. I picked up the story line fairly easily. It’s a classic tale about the conflict between good and evil, with some interesting echoes and parallels with the Jesus story. There was a devil figure named Flag and a Christ or Savior figure, who was an elderly African American woman known as Mother Abigal. A young man, who becomes one of the inner circle (of disciples) and ends up playing a vital role in the story is a deaf mute. He is a very compassionate person, but he doesn’t believe in God. In one scene, Mother Abigal is talking about God and the role that this young man will play in accomplishing the will of God, when one of the members of their little group speaks up and says, “But he doesn’t believe in God.” Mother Abigal, not surprised at all, turns gently to the young deaf man and looking directly to him says, “That’s okay child, because God believes in you.”

I wonder. Who do you know or I know that might need to hear that message? Might there be persons in your family, in your workplace, in your neighborhood, in your network of friends who need to hear and know that you believe in them. And sensing that you believe in them maybe they can trust that God believes in them too. You see, God works through humanity, through you and me, to redeem humanity.

This is our calling as the body of Christ. To act in God’s stead. To represent the Christ. The Spirit in us, speaks and works through us connecting with the Spirit in the other. Everyone has the Spirit, everyone bears the image of God, even though many do not know it.   

Well, let me end where I started and say to those of you who may just be tempted to throw in the towel because the storms you have had to face seem overwhelming. Don’t give up. Keep remembering how God has given us Jesus and showed us God’s love through him and in numerous other ways. Keep trusting and hoping because even though we might not be able to see, sense, or feel God in our midst, God hasn’t left. And maybe when one of us is down, God can use the other to left up the one who is down.

Write down the vision, says the prophet. Make it plain. Live by faith. God still speaks. God is at work. The glory of the Lord fills the earth. If we just had eyes to see. So be faithful. Do good. Act justly. Pursue mercy. Walk humbly. Keep loving and caring.

Let’s sing with God’s prophet the final stanza of his song of faith: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” And that is my prayer for all of us. Amen